Everest 3D, film review: A battle for survival with awesome views

(12A) Baltasar Kormákur, 121 mins Starring: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, John Hawkes
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The Independent Culture

In mountaineering movies, it is a rule of (frost-bitten) thumb that what goes up doesn't necessarily come down. Baltasar Kormákur's visually stunning Everest isn't quite sure what approach to take to death and suffering. It has the trappings of a rousing, old-fashioned action-adventure, but there is a bleakness at its core that it seems reluctant fully to acknowledge. This isn't a film that wants to touch the void. It can't make up its mind whether its main characters are heroic, foolhardy or simply unlucky. Kormákur struggles to work out whether they deserve to be celebrated, castigated or pitied and mourned.

No one really wants to see a film in which the climbers reach the peak without mishap, plant their flags and then come down again. That is why George Mallory, who disappeared during his 1924 attempt on Everest, seems an infinitely more romantic figure than Edmund Hillary, the phlegmatic New Zealand beekeeper who, in 1953, with the Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, was the first up Everest – or, at least, the first to come back safely down after getting to the top. Everest fudges the issue, depicting disaster but still finding a kernel of triumph within it. Its narrative missteps notwithstanding, this is a movie on the grandest scale, one that really does induce a sense of awe.

The film is based on the true story of a 1996 expedition which went very wrong after a number of teams were caught in a "rogue" storm. Early on, the screenplay, co-written by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, has a satirical edge. Globalisation has reached the Himalayas. It is the clutter that takes us by surprise. Everest is supposed to be one of the remotest places on earth but climbers from all over the world have converged there, bringing their equipment, spreading their litter, sharing their gossip. The world's highest mountain appears to have become a glorified theme-park attraction, open to anyone who can pay the hefty admission price (up to $65,000 each). With 20 separate teams swarming together at base camp, there are lots of bearded men in North Face jackets sitting around fires.

This is an ensemble piece with multiple protagonists. The film is skilful in sketching them all in. The main character is the New Zealander Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), a rugged, kind-hearted team leader who has left behind a very pregnant wife (Keira Knightley) to embark on what he expects to be a routine trip. Nicknamed "the mayor of base camp," he is a Kiwi equivalent to the kind of doughty everyman that John Mills used to play in British movies of the 1950s.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays a more volatile, impulsive climber and team leader, the American Scott Fischer, who decides to team up with Hall to avoid "the bumper to bumper" traffic they might otherwise encounter en route. Team members include an extraordinary range of climbers, everyone from New Zealand postman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) to journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), macho Texan doctor Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) and self-effacing but dogged Japanese climber Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori). Their support group includes the ultra-resourceful Helen Wilton (Emily Watson, who is very lively in the role).

Everest relies heavily on CGI and special effects. The base-camp scenes were shot in an outdoor tank at Cinecitta Studios in Rome; some of the location work was done in the Dolomites. Nonetheless, Kormákur succeeds in making us feel that we are stuck on the Himalayan mountains with the increasingly beleaguered climbers. One high-angle shot of a long and thin footbridge with a gaping chasm below it is guaranteed to give palpitations to anyone with a fear of heights. When the weather turns and the storm builds, we can almost feel the biting chill of the winds. There are dizzying 3D shots of crevasses, majestic views of the peaks and lots of imagery of glacial ice. "The last word always belongs to the mountain," one character observes, a slightly trite line but one that underlines the powerlessness of the climbers once the elements turn against them.

Thanks to modern technology, those stranded at the edge of the world can still contact loved ones – a luxury not afforded to Captain Scott or George Mallory in extremis. There is something uncanny in the scenes in which Hall, in a blizzard near the top of Everest, talks on a satellite phone with his wife, Jan, tucked up in bed in New Zealand. As she points out, he is so far away, "He might as well be on the moon." Their intimate conversations provide the film with a melodramatic undertow. This isn't just a movie about a desperate battle for survival. It also morphs into love story. Alongside Knightley's Jan, the film-makers also show us Robin Wright as Peach Weathers, Buck's wife back home in suburban Dallas with her kids, ready to go to extreme lengths to get him back.

Buck is the richest character in the film. As played by Brolin, he seems at first to be arrogant and obnoxious but, as the climb begins to go wrong, he shows both vulnerability and a stubborn and heroic desire to stay alive.

On one level, this is a chronicle of incompetence. The climbers may have been faced with freak weather conditions but that shouldn't have taken them by surprise. They make bad and dangerous decisions that compound their problems, albeit often for decent motives.

The film-makers are reluctant to deal frankly with the squalor and suffering that the mountaineers endured, or to explore their motives too closely. Early on, when the journalist Jon Krakauer asks them why they want to climb Everest, most hardly seem to know. Their heroism and selflessness are foregrounded. That is why, in spite of its wind-chill factor and visual splendour, the film feels evasive, as if it is trying to bury its darker themes under the snow. µ

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